MacArthur High School Senior Provides Texas Community with Nutritional Produce

Senior year of high school is a year for football games, prom, and making those lasting memories before everyone goes their separate ways. But for Tori Arellano, senior year at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas has been about continuing her work solving hunger issues within her community by growing and harvesting produce on a Tower Garden grown inside her high school. 

For the last three years, Arellano has been working alongside Dr. Nicole McCauley, CEO and founder of Planting Seeds, an organization that gives schools educational classroom Tower Gardens and self-sustainable Tower Farms, all through the use of grants. Connecting through MacArthur’s Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA) program, which focuses on preparing emerging leaders at the high school and college level around the globe for a variety of careers, McCauley and Arellano teamed up to focus their combined efforts on providing nutritional produce for students in the school and meeting the challenge of food insecurity by growing with a Tower Garden at MacArthur High School. Planting Seeds works alongside an authorized commercial representative to assist small to medium sized non profits in acquiring and sustaining Tower Farms. Planting Seeds is a support function that allows increased accessibility to Tower Farms for those who need it most. 

We met virtually with Arellano and McCauley to learn more about the role of Tower Garden at MacArthur High School, where the future of vertical farming is headed, and what they hope for the surrounding community. Learn more through our interview below. 

Q. Tori, let’s begin with you. What made you strive to solve the gap between nutrition and how kids are performing in school? Are there any specific memories that stand out where you realized this was a real issue happening in the community?

Arellano:  I was really trying to understand how to use produce because growing up in a Hispanic household, there really isn’t a lot of produce that gets used besides lettuce or tomatoes on top of something. I kind of had to teach myself how to prepare produce. I actually lost 50 pounds along the way. All of my family was really invested in learning too. My mom wanted me to teach her what to get from the store and how to prepare it. That helped me get a grasp on my nutrition and understand what being healthy was. It has helped me throughout the year and to stay more energized. When you’re eating right you have enough energy to get you through the day. 

Q. When you decided to work to solve this need in your community, what made you choose vertical farming vs. another type of growing method like raised bed gardening?

Arellano: Our school is in a [suburban] area. There is not enough room for crops or raised bed farming because we are in a limited amount of space. In the future we are planning to have 250 Towers in the school. For now we just have one. We really wanted to take advantage of our space, and we were able to do that with Tower Garden.

Q. How has Tower Garden assisted your mission of solving food insecurity in the Irving community?

McCauley:  The Planting Seeds process is [focused on] getting food into schools. If we are going to end the challenge of food insecurity, we need to add the educational component too. The idea behind Planting Seeds is planting real food and growing future leaders. We want to educate students so that they learn how to take healthy living and bring it to their homes, families, and communities. If Tower Garden wasn’t the most amazing product in the world, I would have chosen something else. But it is and I am so grateful. 

Q. You’ve mentioned that you’re giving away Tower Garden produce to students/families in need. How does that process work?

Arellano: We identify students in our community who are in need, and we package the produce for them. We are hoping to partner with our culinary department at school and teach families how to cook that produce. If not, it would just sit and rot. At that point there is no effect happening on the community. Right now, we are working to ensure that something happens with the produce that we give away. 

McCauley: In sending home the produce, we are also developing a nutritional education card on how to prepare it. Which is going to say something about what the student learned about — like kale for instance. The card will include what it does for the body and the simple ways to make it. As we are going throughout that process, we are also empowering families. It starts with one simple change, and that changes the family's perspective. If there are parents that don’t know what broccoli is, how are they going to serve it to their children? And the last thing we want is to embarrass those parents. We want to make sure they are all empowered and educated.

Q. Dr. McCauley, your organization helped to fund the grant for this partnership at MacArthur High School. How did this all come about?

McCauley: I grew up highly food insecure. I grew up with behavioral problems and getting into trouble. A teacher changed my life. She changed the trajectory of my life. My past didn’t have to be my future. She shared her lunches with me. If I wanted to make something of myself, I would have to apply myself. Because of her, I knew I had to offer this opportunity to other kids too. 

I wear this bracelet that says 8,943. 8,943 kids die every day from hunger and starvation. It’s worse now. This was last year's number. As this is happening, we needed to do something. Schools don’t need another thing to purchase. It's become where there are more referees than there are educators. We needed to stop the cycle. We had to do something. As I was coming up with the idea, Tower Garden was right there. We don’t go through a project unless we are fully funded with grants. Our whole end process is education and feeding kids. We have a grant writer who is in charge of development and seeing what grants are out there, and she will write those grants for the school. 

Q. What other programs have started throughout the school's entrepreneurship program, and what has that process been like?

Arellano: Basically the entrepreneurship program gives you a chance to build a business by the end of your senior year. There have been multiple apps developed, clothing brands, and landscaping. It gives students the outlets of being as creative as they can be while solving a problem in the community. 

McCauley: MacArthur has a unique program in that they are a business program. Tori is not doing the farming, she’s running the business aspect. How do we maintain that throughout students and the graduation process? We have developed that revenue generation for a job. We’ve changed the line item from the school buying lettuce —to instead of spending money on the lettuce, they are spending money on a greenhouse manager. The greenhouse manager will be running and handling all of that. So their position is going to be stable year-round and the students will be the ones to come and go. 

Q. What kind of hopes do you have for the future of this program? 

McCauley: I am so pleased for the position that Irving ISD has. They are going to be the template for not just the Dallas/Fort Worth area but for all of Texas, and the rest of the world. It is wonderful to see the student-led excitement. We are creating a new generation of producers, not just consumers. 

Q. What do you hope for the future within the vertical farming space and women's role within farming? 

Arellano: For me, there was no barrier because of my gender. I just saw it as an opportunity to help others. I hope other women see it as that, and that they can learn about nutrition and do it themselves. I also hope that there are a lot of upper management positions for women. 

Q. What personal goals do you have for your own lives and future within vertical farming space?

Arellano: I hope to graduate from Texas A&M with a degree in business and minor in agriculture. I hope to someday be a CEO of a company. For vertical farming, I hope it becomes very widespread. I hope that one day it is just the normal thing to have in your house, and that everyone becomes self-sufficient in that sense. 

McCauley: This is my life mission. I will spend the rest of my life setting up self-sustainable farms. When I’m working with a domestic farm here in America, and we’ve gotten those grants for the farm, I get a commission off of doing that. One hundred percent of everything that I earn goes into my foundation, the McCauley Foundation. The foundation pays for the international farms. The grants pay for the school farm. I get paid because of that, and then I put that into the foundation which pays for the international farm. Each international farm pays for the next farm and the next. It is truly planting seeds. We are paying forward the gift that’s been given. My whole life goal is to feed and educate as many people as I can. 

We want to thank Tori Arellano and Dr. Nicole McCauley for sharing their story and hopes for the future with us! Have a story you’d like to share? Reach out to us via our official Facebook page. Happy growing!


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